Last year, in the heat of his campaign, President Obama boasted that he had put al-Qaida “on the path to defeat.” This year, with 19 U.S. consulates and embassies closed and the State Department issuing vague warnings against travel anywhere in the world, al-Qaida suddenly seems resurgent and as frightening as ever.
So which is it: defeated or resurgent?
Al-Qaida hasn’t gone away, but it has changed — in a way that makes it less dangerous for Americans at home, but more dangerous for Americans who live in the Middle East and Africa.
Once it was global, but today’s al-Qaida has gone local.
This month’s threat against Western embassies, for example, was focused on capitals in the Middle East — especially in Yemen, where al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula has been fighting to overthrow a government supported by the United States.
Other attacks by al-Qaida franchises have had a similarly parochial focus, from Mali and Somalia to Pakistan. Even in Libya, where a group loosely connected to al-Qaida attacked the U.S. consulate in Benghazi last year, the operation appeared to stem from a local struggle for power, not a global plot directed by the heirs of Osama bin Laden.
Outside its home territories, though, al-Qaida has failed to strike successfully in the United States or Europe since the 2005 bombing of the London underground — an eight-year slump.
The organization still employs the man some U.S. officials call the world’s most dangerous terrorist, Saudi-born bomb maker Ibrahim Hassan Asiri — but Asiri’s plots haven’t worked so far. In 2009, his underwear bomber got as far as Detroit, but the detonator failed.
That same year, Asiri’s brother, outfitted with a similar bomb, got as far as the palace of Saudi Arabia’s counterterrorism chief — another local target — and blew himself up, but he was the only casualty in the attack.
U.S. officials say they still consider Asiri and his innovative bombs a major threat to aviation security. But note that this month’s alerts, based on intercepted communications between al-Qaida leaders in Yemen and Pakistan, didn’t focus on planes; they focused on embassies.
In that sense, al-Qaida may be returning to its roots, reprising the kind of plots it successfully employed before Osama bin Laden escalated to spectacular attacks in the West. Before 2001, al-Qaida’s main focus was on attacking embassies and other outposts of foreign power in the Middle East and Africa — operations like the attack on the U.S. destroyer Cole off Yemen in 2000 and the bombing of U.S. embassies in East Africa in 1998. According to some scholars, bin Laden’s successor, Ayman Zawahiri, always thought it was more cost-effective to strike U.S. embassies in the region than to attempt attacks inside the United States.
Al-Qaida and its many outgrowths have become a different kind of problem for the United States and its allies.
Homegrown terrorism can still occur on American soil, as it did at the Boston marathon.
But at least for now, al-Qaida seems focused on the Western presence in its own backyard, not on targets in the West.
The good news, to put it bluntly, is that most Americans have less to worry about. New Yorkers no longer live in the shadow of another 9/11. American tourists can visit London, Paris or even Bali without being any more vigilant about suspicious packages or unaccompanied suitcases than they would be at home.
Even the State Department’s Worldwide Travel Alert issued recently had a slightly sheepish tone, reminding Americans of “the continued potential for terrorist attacks,” especially in the Middle East.
But for U.S. diplomats working in embassies overseas, the new normal is a serious problem — as much for their ability to do their work as for their safety.
“There’s a serious case of Benghazi-phobia going on,” one government official told me.
After terrorists attacked the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, killing Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans, Congress demanded tougher security measures.
This month’s closure of embassies for more than a week was, in part, a response. The State Department said the action was taken “out of an abundance of caution.”
But working diplomats worry that if embassies close in response to every threat, their work will be impossible.
“Washington makes decisions on a zero-risk basis, [but] there has been a level of risk for years,” noted Ronald E. Neumann, a former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan.
Put more bluntly: If a bomb maker in Yemen can close U.S. embassies just by making plans for his next attempt, doesn’t that mean the terrorists have won?
Over the long run, diplomats are going to have to find new ways to work without exposing themselves to danger, according to the State Department’s former counterterrorism chief.
“This is the new normal,” said Daniel Benjamin, now director of the John Sloan Dickey Center for International Understanding at Dartmouth College. “We’ve been closing embassies off and on for the last five years. ... In a lot of places, after the Arab Spring, we can’t rely on local security services anymore. It’s going to be very difficult to fix. But if you lose an embassy (to a successful attack), that’s an even bigger setback.”
DOYLE MCMANUS is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times. His column is distributed by MCT Information Services.